When a used-car salesman says, “I will be honest,” it’s a sure sign he won’t be.
Same with a card huckster. For him, “I will be honest” means “Don’t look at my hands.” Other tells may include “You saw for yourself that this deck was legitimately shuffled.” (It wasn’t.) Or “I want this to be as fair as possible.” (Watch your wallet.)
All of these are part of Helder Guimarães’s patter in “The Future,” a Zoom magic show from the Geffen Playhouse trying very hard to be more — but only partly succeeding. Oddly, it’s the magic part that most disappoints, at least as theater. The “more” part, a stretch toward greater meaning, is engaging even as you wonder if it too is a deception.
That stretch comes between card tricks, as Guimarães offers glimpses of his life’s journey from fanboy to sorcerer’s apprentice to fast hand for hire. The tension between entertainment and crookery that’s built into the business eventually grows into a full-blown dilemma when he meets his childhood idol in Marseille.
The idol, a British cardsharp named Kevin who presents himself as a reformed gambler, at first fulfills Guimarães’s teenage fantasies. Kevin seems to be the kind of man who would ply his trade in purple rooms with velour curtains and Venetian landscapes on the wall.
The reality, in the form of a rigged high-stakes poker game Kevin invites Guimarães to join, is somewhat seedier. Eventually the younger man has to make a choice between betraying his idol and maintaining what he thought were his values.
“I wanted to put some wonder in the world,” he says. Kevin, on the other hand, “wanted to outsmart people for money.”
By the time Guimarães finds himself rigging raffles at corporate parties, the bright-line difference between those two worldviews has blurred. We never do learn what choice he made about Kevin, which makes sense theatrically, if not morally or magically. Who creates an illusion but refuses to complete it?
To the extent the show’s tricks are meant to illustrate that story, they are effective. Many of the ones Guimarães learned from Kevin or saw him perfect — “second dealing, center dealing, stacking the deck, false shuffling, mucking” — are performed live during “The Future.” Narratively, that’s satisfying.
But as magic for magic’s sake, the tricks, however brilliant, are baffling, for the very reason they succeed: They’re invisible. That’s especially the case on Zoom, where “pick a card, any card” doesn’t work.
It’s less than awe-inspiring, for instance, that Guimarães has to tell us he has completed Kevin’s “cold deck” deception, a holy grail act of prestidigitation in which all 52 cards are secretly switched out for 52 others. On the evidence of our senses, nothing at all has happened except the elaborate setup and the surprising conclusion. I oohed but wasn’t sure what I was oohing at.
Guimarães’s hucksterish eagerness, in contrast to his questing thoughtfulness in other contexts, doesn’t help in this one. As a workaround for the Zoom problem, he hammers so hard at the transparency of his deceptions that, like a character in a play, he invites skepticism about them. We know they are tricks; why keep badgering us to say that they aren’t?
It’s misdirection, of course, the art of keeping our minds off whatever a magician doesn’t want us to notice. Kevin’s version, during that rigged poker game, was to have a confederate shatter a wineglass; on Zoom, with its lack of real eye contact, the task of distracting the eye is naturally much harder. That’s probably why a ticket to “The Future” includes a collection of props, including a deck of cards, mailed to each audience member in a chic black capsule: misdirection for the pandemic age.
So although I admired Guimarães’s skill in “The Future” as much as I had in “The Present,” his previous show for the Geffen, I tired of his more elaborate tricks even faster than I did in the past. And though his storytelling — this time more evocatively realized in Frank Marshall’s direction — was lively, it wasn’t so distracting as to quell my suspicion that it was merely another form of misdirection.
This suggests a genre problem. (Or it may just be a me problem; most of the 50 or so participants seemed to have a grand time throughout.) Magic, like ventriloquism, mind-reading, mime and other para-theatrical forms, has long sought greater legitimacy on what used to be called the legitimate stage. Working Vegas like some elephantless variety act is no longer enough for ambitious magicians; they aspire to the condition of drama.
I think that’s a mistake. If the choice, as Guimarães expresses it, is between putting some wonder in the world and outsmarting people for money — tickets for “The Future” are $95 — I vote for wonder. I’d rather have some sequins and a rabbit than a three of clubs with a résumé.
Through March 14; geffenplayhouse.org.